Here's How You Can Get Into Riding Motorcycles—Safely
Ready to ride into the great unknown? This is everything you need to know to get started.
- Guides & Gear
So you’ve just watched Travis Pastrana double backflip on a dirt bike in Action Figures, and then followed that up by watching the one-and-only Ice Cube star in Torque, the greatest motorcycle movie in all of existence. And now you’re thinking, “Hell yeah, that’s something I want to try!” Mazel tov! Welcome to the beginner motorcyclist club.
Riding motorcycles is one of my favorite pleasures. The world passing around you in unrepentant glory, the ability to go anywhere anytime, and the freedom it provides in terms of walling off life’s awfulness is something, for me, you just can’t obtain with four wheels and a metal body wrapped around you. On a motorcycle, you’re a modern cowboy, though you’re significantly less likely to get scurvy or shot by a cattle rustler today.
That’s not to say riding doesn’t come with serious potential consequences, as it absolutely does and they shouldn’t be shied away from. Riding a motorcycle can lead to serious injury or death. That’s just a matter of fact, and more new or prospective riders should understand those dangers are real and can be life-changing, especially when just first starting out.
It might sound like I'm trying to talk you out of it. I’m not—far from it, in fact. I have first-hand experience living through a mentality-altering bike accident, but I still find the pure joy that hopping on a motorcycle provides outweighs the risks. If you’re considering getting into riding, you should understand both the good and the bad. By doing so you’ll be far better prepared than most who just say, “Woo, I’m getting a motorcycle, let’s pop wheelies!” and little else.
In aid of that preparation, I have devoted the following guide to getting you, a prospective motorcyclist, up to speed on the process behind getting you into motorcycle riding. Let’s get started.
How Do I Get Into Riding Motorcycles?
Before you buy a motorcycle or a shred of protective gear, all of which can be very expensive, it’s best you have your eyes open to both the good and the bad of motorcycling. This won’t be an all-encompassing list of either, but these are the stand-outs you need to know when you’re starting off.
Motorcycles have been there for me on my greatest and worst days. Pulling on a helmet and setting off onto a perfect ribbon of tarmac or out among the scrub brush and sage, there’s nothing like it. You’re alone, not with your thoughts, but with each and every passing moment. It brings clarity in times of strife and inner peace in times of turmoil. The idea of transcendence comes to mind.
Riding also brings a community together. Though it’s a solitary act, you and the bike as one, all riders share a common love and the bond of the community can bring disparate folks together. The late, great Anthony Bourdain once said about food, "You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together." The same can be said about sharing the road with the community of motorcyclists.
Motorcycles are dangerous machines, full stop. Unlike when you're driving a car, you’re exposed. Exposed to the elements, other riders, pedestrians, and worse yet, car drivers. Like me, you could find yourself at the mercy of some unseen gravel and take a tumble into the side of a mountain. Or, like a friend more recently, have a drunk driver smash into you and see your riding days finished—though it could’ve been far worse.
Motorcycles also require absolute attention. They aren’t forgiving if you make the wrong move or decision, especially when you’re surrounded by inattentive commuters numbed to their tedious drives who are looking down at their phones, changing the radio station, dealing with a screaming toddler, or just not caring to look in their mirrors. I’ve had numerous close calls with drivers who simply did not see me, including one who actually hit me.
Likewise, though you put on gear from head to toe, you lack the safety of what motorcyclists affectionately call a “cage,” better known as a car. The car that hit me still left a massive bruise on my right calf even with my armored Alpinestars jeans. You’re exposed and don’t have bumpers to save you.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) there have been about 5,000 motorcycle fatalities in the United States from 2018 to 2019. That’s far fewer than the 40,000 average fatalities attributed to car drivers, but given the population of motorcycle riders is a lot smaller than people with driver's licenses, it’s still a lot. Again, I don’t repeat these figures to dissuade you but to open your eyes because motorcycles aren’t for everyone.
If you’re still with me, let’s crack on.
The world of motorcycles is just as diverse as automobiles. There are sport bikes, cruisers, adventure bikes, scooters, mini-bikes, pit-bikes, sport-touring, touring, naked, trikes, and even electrics. Each has its own little ecosystem and clubby feeling to them, but in the end, we all ride motorcycles, and that should bring us together.
On almost every motorcycle in showrooms and Craigslist, you’ll find two wheels, a clutch, a front brake, a rear brake, a chain or shaft to drive the rear wheel, and an engine. You can get either a one-seater or two, and they’ll last for as long as you maintain them. As for how you get going, the basic premise is very similar to that of a manual car. Here’s a taster.
- Put on your safety gear.
- Straddle the motorcycle and turn it on.
- Grip the front brake lever so the motorcycle can’t pull forward.
- Move the kickstand into its stowed position with the heel of your boot.
- Engage the clutch lever.
- Press your left foot down and shift the motorcycle to first gear.
- Don’t touch the throttle. The motorcycle has enough torque to set off without using the throttle.
- Release the brake lever, but maintain your hand placement as you may need to brake quickly.
- Gently begin releasing the clutch until the motorcycle begins to move forward.
- Release the clutch fully and ride in a short straight line with your feet hovering over the pavement so you don’t accidentally tip over.
- Pull in the clutch lever and gently grip the brake lever to come to a stop.
- Repeat until you feel comfortable riding those short distances with your feet placed on the foot controls.
- Put the kickstand down with the heel of your boot.
As for the physics of riding, motorcycle dynamics are similar to bicycle dynamics, in that steering the handlebars isn’t the primary method of changing direction. Rather, your lean angle and body weight is the main steering input. That said, the weight of a motorcycle is vastly different than that of a bicycle and must be taken into account.
Further, wherever you aim your eyes ahead of you, that’s where you’ll go. Humans tend to veer wherever their eyes lead them and keeping those eyes up, looking ahead, or in the direction of travel tends to lead the motorcycle along. Keep that in mind when you see something that you don’t want to hit, i.e. target fixation. If you look away, you likely will not hit whatever the object is.
You can read more about how to actually get going right here in our guide, How To Ride a Motorcycle.
How to Pick Up a Fallen Motorcycle
Last but not least, the dreaded “What to do” question. As in, what happens or what should you do if you’ve dropped your motorcycle. It’s a heavy machine, well over 300 lbs (and sometimes double that), and you struggle with just a few bags of salt! Never fear, it’s pretty simple and you can do it alone.
- Jump to the side of the bike that’s physically touching the ground.
- With your back toward the seat, squat.
- Grab the handlebar closest to the ground.
- Grab the passenger footpeg that’s closest to the ground.
- Using your legs as the pushing force, push down until the bike tilts up.
- Keep pushing until it’s righted.
Motorcycle Gear 101
If you’ve ever done a cursory look at motorcycle culture before this, you may recall seeing the acronym ATGATT. It’s one of hot debate among some motorcycle enthusiasts, but not here. ATGATT stands for All The Gear All The Time and means that the riders will wear every piece of safety gear every single time they swing a leg over a motorcycle. It’s a code we always try to live by. That said, I’m human, I make mistakes, I have suffered consequences of those mistakes, and I'm always striving to do better.
As for what ATGATT entails, let’s talk about the gear you’ll want to wear.
You like your face? Your brain? Your witty personality? Knowing the difference between a bagel and a seagull? Yeah, that’s what a helmet protects. Serious motorcycle injuries often involve head trauma and wearing a helmet reduces the chance of serious trauma by 42 percent, according to.
There are a handful of different types, too, including quarter, half, modular, and full-face helmets. We’re big fans of modular and full-face helmets as they protect your entire face in the event of an accident. We’re also big fans of not needing facial skin grafts.
Your torso is what houses all those pesky vital internal organs you’re forced to take care of. You know, your heart, kidneys, lungs, and stomach. A jacket, especially one with internal armor, gives you some extra padding in case you go down. Armor is typically located at the points where you’ll hit the ground, like the elbows, shoulders, back, and chest.
Like helmets, jackets come in different shapes, sizes, and materials, including leather, textile, or perforated. Not all jackets come equipped with armor, either.
No, these aren’t your average Levi’s. Like motorcycle jackets, motorcycle jeans tend to have armor and are built out of Kevlar rather than denim. They’re designed to keep your knees and posterior insulated from hard impacts and are tear-resistant if you skid across the hard pavement. Depending on your chosen type of motorcycling, you can also get textile pants for off-road use or hot summer days.
Footwear is extremely important for motorcycling as a set of Chucks just won’t do. Motorcycle boots can be made of leather, kevlar, or composite materials all designed to keep your feet protected. It’s also extremely important that you get over-the-ankle boots as that ensures there’s no twisting-force exerted onto them if you go down.
Off-road and dirt bike riders can also get calf-length boots that include extra protection.
The basis of humanity can be boiled down to the use of your hands. Without them, you’re just an average animal. Armored gloves will keep you in our apex predator position on planet Earth. Look for ones that have good grip, good flexibility, good breathability, good top-side protection for your knuckles, and coverage down to your wrists.
You’ve undoubtedly seen someone riding a motorcycle with a leather suit that hits from neck to ankle. These are designed for sportier motorcycles and are meant to ensure absolute protection when flying through a corner like Valentino Rossi. They’re the ultimate form of protection in the motorcycling world.
Recently, manufacturers like Alpinestars and Dainese have introduced airbag systems built into vests, jackets, or suits that provide even more protection to riders by automatically inflating when a G-sensor gets tripped. The airbag is often stored in your chest or your back, and the bags most frequently protect your breastplate, your clavicles, your shoulders, your neck, and keep your head in place like a HANS device.
What I Wear
- Helmets: Shoei RF1200 or AGV Sportmodular Carbon
- Jacket: Alpinestars Oscar Charlie Jacket or Alpinestars GP Plus Jacket
- Gloves: Alpinestars Oscar Cafe Divine Drystar or Alpinestars SP-8 v2 Gloves
- Jeans: Alpinestars Copper v2 Jeans
- Boots: Alpinestars Parlor Drystar Boots or Thursday Boot Company President
Motorcycle Schooling, Permitting, and Licensing
Gear can only help you so much, though. You’ll also need to know how to ride. As with cars, the government is involved. But that's a good thing here, because it reduces the amount of yahoos on joyrides and crashing into bushes or buses.
Motorcycle safety schools are operated all over the country by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF). The two-day school teaches you the bare-bones basics of motorcycle riding and safety and are great tools for beginners. Furthermore, if you take a motorcycle safety course, when you go for your license, you don’t have to worry about the practical portion of the test, just the written. Win-win!
Remember your learner’s permit at 15? Yeah, they have those for motorcycles too. You can also bypass this if you do the motorcycle safety course.
Once you’ve passed the written test, and done the safety school, you’ll get a motorcycle endorsement on your driver’s license. It’ll be a little “M” on the physical license. This is also a great time to change that awful driver’s license picture that makes you look like a strung-out drug dealer as they’ll need to take your picture again for the new endorsement!
The Drive’s Recommendations for Motorcycle Beginners
Look, I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve walked this path and, unfortunately, I didn’t have someone invested in my health, well-being, or long-term motorcycling. So I did everything wrong. I bought a bike far too fast for my needs. I didn’t have the right equipment, outside a nice Bell helmet, and I definitely learned on my own at 17 years old.
I don’t want that for you, so here are my suggestions on how to get into riding motorcycles. You can call me Uncle Jonathon from here on out.
1. Take an MSF Class
There’s no better way to figure out if motorcycles are right for you than in the safety and security of a motorcycle safety class. They tend to provide the bikes, have rental safety equipment, and are done so that even those who’ve never ridden before can start. These classes also teach you better driving skills, as they teach you how to look up, look through turns, and be wary of your surroundings.
2. Start Small...Displacement
You don’t need a fire-breathing Ducati V4 Superleggera as your first motorcycle. Heck, most seasoned veterans don’t need one. All you need to start is something that’ll be able to carry your butt down the road. For beginners, that means small displacement. Learn the fundamentals first on something that won’t whiskey throttle you into a Prius.
3. Start Slow
Just as I suggested you start with something of the smaller displacement variety, start slow in terms of actually learning. Get the basics down before trying a highway ride, a cross-country trip, a track test, or a backcountry blast. Wind your way through your neighborhood a few times. Learn how to get off the line without stalling. Do the homework! Just be happy you don’t have to have your mom in the passenger seat while you learn this time.
4. Invest in Your Future By Investing in Good Gear
Do you want Bob’s Discount Jackets and Kitchen Equipment clothing you, or do you want the folks who protect MotoGP riders from 160mph crashes? Do your research on motorcycle gear brands because you get what you pay for, and in this case, you’re paying for your continued existence and safety. My current setup is as follows:
Beginner Motorcycle FAQs
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q: Am I going to wreck?
Q: Should you really say that to someone just starting off?
A: Do you want to go into this with your eyes open or not?
A: Then yeah, you’re probably going to crash at some point. It might not be as bad as mine. You might just fall over at a stoplight, but it could be worse. The more you’re aware of that possibility, the safer you’ll ride, i.e. wear your dang protective gear.
Q: So can, or should, I teach myself?
A: To answer that first question. Yeah, you can totally teach yourself. I did. But should you? Probably not. Motorcycle safety instructors are there for a reason, and after a few years of riding, I went in and did the basic course. It was a great refresher and helped me become a better rider.
Additionally, there are a handful of motorcycle training schools to help your technique further once you’ve been riding for a long time. You can find schools that specialize in track riding, off-roading, and dirt tracks. In my opinion, more education is always better.
Q: Yeah, but can I learn the basics from a bicycle?
A: Eh, sorta. You can get the general physics of it as they’re both two-wheel modes of transportation. But there’s a lot less weight to a bicycle compared to a motorcycle, as well as human vs. machine power. You’ll also have to get used to clutches and shifters and all the assorted buttons on a motorcycle’s handlebars.
Q: Then are motorcycles worth the risk?
A: I can’t make that decision for you, it has to come from within. To me, they are. They provide freedom from life’s calluness and ease for when everything’s too noisy. They can also provoke certain exclamations of joy. At least for me. You and I are different and you’ll need to make this decision on your own. I love motorcycles, though.
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